VIENNA, Austria (AP) — The United States is lobbying allies in a bid to oust the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, perhaps as early as the end of the month, diplomats and officials told The Associated Press yesterday.

Anticipating that present European diplomatic efforts on Iran will fail, the diplomats and officials also told AP that Washington plans to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program when the International Atomic Energy Agency meets Feb. 28.

In Tehran, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told foreign diplomats that no Iranian government would ever abandon the progress the country has made in developing peaceful nuclear technology.

Washington, which accuses Iran of making nuclear weapons and wants it brought before the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions, considers IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei too soft on the Tehran leadership.

No U.S. comment was available on Washington’s strategy for the upcoming IAEA board of governors meeting.

But several diplomats and government officials from IAEA member countries dismissed recent reports that the United States had given up attempts to unseat ElBaradei because of lack of support from other countries.

“They’ve been lobbying, and close friends have given them a good reception,” said one of the officials familiar with the issue, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another said Undersecretary of State John Bolton and other senior State Department officials “were still lobbying the capitals, telling them it’s the way to go.”

With Elbaradei’s agency spearheading international attempts to squelch nuclear proliferation, the head of the IAEA is a key position for Bush administration officials. They want someone who shares their views of which country represents a nuclear threat and what to do about it.

ElBaradei has challenged those views — first over prewar Iraq and then Iran, both labeled part of an “axis of evil,” along with North Korea, by President Bush.

He first disputed U.S. assertions that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons program — claims that remain unproven.

He then refused to endorse arguments by Washington that nuclear activities Iran claims are meant only to generate power are actually part of a clandestine weapons program.

A direct U.S. move to oust ElBaradei failed late last year — the Americans were unable to find anyone to challenge him for a third term by the Dec. 31 deadline, shortly after calling on him to step down with his second term completed.

It remains unclear whether Washington could muster the 12 votes needed among the 35-nation IAEA board for a vote of nonconfidence in ElBaradei.

 

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